‘How are there so many perfect scores?’ IB results raise eyebrows

Talking points

  • Close to 5 per cent of Australian IB graduates received a perfect score of 45 last year, which converts to an ATAR of 99.95.
  • The IB diploma is an internationally recognised VCE alternative that requires students to study six subjects, including a second language, write a 4000-word research essay and perform community service.
  • The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre’s changes to the way it converts IB scores to ATARs will take effect this year.

Australian students are falling behind students overseas, the story goes. Tell that to Australian students who are blitzing the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate.

The Morrison government has set a target for Australian student results to be among the world’s best by 2030, after students recorded their worst results in the OECD’s international maths, science and reading test, PISA.

But Australia’s declining performance in PISA is a far cry from the country’s stellar IB results, which have reignited questions about equity and inflated marking.

Close to 5 per cent of Australian IB graduates received a perfect score of 45 last year, which converts to an ATAR of 99.95 – up from 2 per cent the year prior. By contrast, just 0.09 per cent of VCE graduates achieved a perfect score last year, up slightly on the previous year.

“People are asking, ‘how are there so many perfect scores? What has led to that?’” said Australian Catholic University senior lecturer Paul Kidson.

Australia, which is one of the world’s biggest IB markets, also had a higher pass rate and better results than the global average.

Kidson said Australia’s IB results reflected the high socio-economic status of IB students, the organisation’s support for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, and schools possibly selecting their most-able students for the diploma.

Dr Sarah Richardson, who has worked extensively on PISA and the IB, said the strong link between socio-economic status and educational achievement played a key role in explaining why Australian IB students performed so well, but the country’s PISA scores were on a downward trajectory.

Richardson said Australia’s PISA results revealed a gulf between the top-performing students and the weakest students, larger than in many other countries.

“We know that the correlation between socio-economic status and achievement in Australia is high. We already see this in [numeracy and literacy test] NAPLAN at grade 3, and the gap gets greater as students move up through school.”

Schools often chose the cream of the crop to do the IB for years 11 and 12, said education consultant Paul O’Shannassy, from Regent Consulting.

“They screen them because it’s more difficult. Some schools insist on a B+ average in year 10 to undertake the course in Australia whereas if you’re in Hong Kong, the curriculum is the IB whether you’re a battler or not,” he said.

The IB diploma is an internationally recognised VCE alternative that requires students to study six subjects, including a second language, write a 4000-word research essay and perform community service.

Government schools account for about a fifth of schools offering the IB for years 11 and 12, and include Albert Park College, Brighton College and Mac.Rob select-entry girls’ school.

Mainly taught at high-fee non-government schools, including Geelong Grammar, Presbyterian Ladies’ College and Wesley College, there have been complaints that IB students have an edge over their VCE counterparts when their results are converted to ATARs.

Kidson said last year’s IB results, in which the mean global graduate score jumped 2.8 points to 32.4, had reignited concerns about overly generous marking.

“There’s a real sensitivity to supporting students and schools that have gone through difficult challenges, and that’s laudable, but what you’re looking for in those conversions is real consistency,” he said. “It’s not just that there’s some change, but that the change is so significant.”

A spokeswoman for the IB said: “The IB has taken the pandemic’s global disruption to education into account when determining grades for this year. The IB’s main priority has been to ensure students are not disadvantaged by the pandemic, including their applications to university and higher education.”

NSW university chiefs have ordered a review of last year’s IB results after a surge in perfect scores. The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre’s changes to the way it converts IB scores to ATARs will take effect this year.

”From late 2022 (for 2023 admissions), a new fine-grained conversion schedule will be used to convert IB Diploma Programme total points to an ATAR,” a VTAC spokeswoman said. “VTAC works closely with our … colleagues interstate to ensure our conversions remain fair and equitable.”

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